Dumbing down Florida’s high schools

New Florida Statute language on circumventing the state’s high school graduation requirement in math.

If Florida’s Education Commissioner gives his imprimatur to a law passed by the legislature and signed by Governor DeSantis last spring, the state’s high school students will no longer have to take and pass a geometry course to graduate. Instead, they will be allowed to substitute “an industry certification for 3D rapid prototype printing” for geometry. In fact, that certification will count as two full credits (year-long courses) of math toward the state’s graduation requirement of four math credits.

The dumbing down of high school graduation requirements in math by the 3D printing certification and the expanded substitution of computing courses for math courses that is now also the law in Florida are undermining the effort to prepare all of Florida’s high school students for the rigors of the economy they will be facing. As a 2018 report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says, the growth of “middle-skills jobs” – those requiring more than a high school education but less than a bachelor’s degree – “has proved a wellspring of opportunity” even while good jobs for workers with no education past a high school diploma “have declined precipitously”. All associates’ degrees – including A.S. degrees in computing – require that students pass a college-level math class. Without a serious high school math class beyond Algebra 1, it is unlikely that a student can succeed in a college credit math class – or access the middle-skills economy.

The dumbing down of Florida’s high schools is also impacting students who are bound for bachelor’s degree programs at colleges and universities. Last year, 36 of the state’s public high schools of 1,000 or more students didn’t offer a physics class – an important component of the high school preparation for college majors in engineering, computer science, physical sciences and the life science and health professions. I have already heard a few stories about additional high schools – especially schools with relatively affluent student bodies – dropping physics this fall. It appears that the situation is worsening.

The incentives embedded in Florida’s school and district grading system certainly contribute to this dumbing down. The grading rubric for high schools features the graduation rate and “college and career acceleration”. The graduation rate component incentivizes using any means available to short-circuit the math requirements (like the 3D printing certification) for students who have decided for whatever reason they don’t like math.

The “college and career acceleration” component gives a high school credit for every student who has at least one college-level credit or industrial certification. A student having two college-level credits doesn’t help the school’s grade. And the high school grading rubric for “college and career acceleration” (shown below) doesn’t distinguish between, say, a low-level dual enrollment College Algebra class and an Advanced Placement Calculus course. To earn College Algebra credit, a high school student must only complete the course with a grade of C-, no matter how rigorous the instructor chooses to make the course or the grading scale. To earn credit for Advanced Placement Calculus (or any other Advanced Placement course) a student must pass the national exam, which provides a strong degree of quality control.

The “College and Career Acceleration” component of Florida’s high school grading rubric. From the Florida Department of Education web site.

But it’s worth noting that the large majority of dual enrollment math credits are for courses on topics that are traditionally taught in conventional high school courses. In the spring of 2019, 6,073 Florida public high school students were dual enrolled in College Algebra. Only 695 were dual enrolled in the Calculus 1 course taken by STEM majors (compared to 14,454 who were enrolled at the same time in the first Advanced Placement calculus course – which is equivalent to the Calculus 1 course taken by STEM majors). Apologists for educational mediocrity who say that students prefer dual enrollment courses over Advanced Placement courses because they don’t like exams probably really mean that students prefer dual enrollment courses because they are on less demanding topics.

In general, dual enrolling in College Algebra removes a high school student from the bachelor’s degree-level STEM pipeline, while a Calculus 1 class (either dual enrollment or the Advanced Placement version) advances a student through that pipeline. But Florida’s high school grading rubric doesn’t make that distinction.

Of course, Florida’s high school grade rubric doesn’t have to undermine a school’s or district’s excellence. Seminole and Bay Counties provide shining examples of districts that have decided to do what’s best for the futures of their students despite the rubric.

But for districts and schools whose leaders do not prioritize their students’ economic futures as highly, Florida’s high school grading rubric provides an excuse for choosing a less demanding path.

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